Ancient Sages of Kavewa
Turtles are like sages, wise creatures that have for decades served as a weather indicator for the residents of this tiny but spectacular island.
That type of nesting behavior, the people observe usually means there wouldn’t be any ferocious tropical cyclone bearing down on them any time soon and so they happily go about their chores.
Kavewa doesn’t have a happy history with these upheavals of nature. The last one literally blew out their plantations, and for months drinking water was as scarce as the rains that fell.
Ropate Waqaiquma excitedly stored this information away. It would be invaluable as supportive evidence of the traditional links island communities have with their turtles.
Kavewa Island lies within the provincial boundaries of Macuata, a province that for decades revered turtles with chiefly regard.
Turtles have an honored place in traditional ceremonies especially in presentations of food and yaqona for the high chief. And so unlike any other fish that swims the seas, they are harvested in a special way, with song and dance.
A Lailai Ni Oroivonu (Child from Koroivonu)
Discovering that turtles also played this other role for islanders excited Ropate.
Where he grew up, in Koroivonu village in Cakaudrove province on the South Eastern side of Vanua Levu, Ropate said he has not witnessed any closeness with turtles akin to what he discovered in the people of Kavewa.
“They are so protective of the turtles, and so attuned to the world surrounding them, there is such a grace in the way they treat their resources both at land and sea that offers them a bounty.”
The first time he witnessed a turtle nest and lay her eggs on Katawaqa island, he became so emotional, he sat and observed the night through.
“I’ll never forget that day. Its challenged me in many ways. I feel so protective, so wanting to tell everyone back home that turtles need our protection and respect,” he said.
Ropate is the team leader for one of the groups of 15 student researchers from the University of the South Pacific and the Fiji National University gathering baseline data for turtle nesting at various nesting sites within the Dau Ni Vonu Network (Turtle Monitoring).
The nesting sites are located along the Great Sea Reef at Yadua, Yaqaga, Galoa, Kia, Mali and Kavewa.
The underwater world has always beckoned to 22 year old Ropate, ever since his first dive intoNatewa Bay. That day the class four student of St Patrick Primary School discovered a magical world beyond compare.
“The bright color of the reef, the fish and other marine life amazed me. And the peace, everything was so peaceful,” he said.
“Turtles belonged to this world, the most magical creature of them all. Even then I was curious about them, they looked different from all the fishes, smart and rare to find.
“I mostly saw them cut up and bloody and in the pot. It never settled right with me, seeing them that way. I wanted know more about them.”
It came as little surprise that the child naturalist grew up to study environmental science at the Fiji National University.
The survey coordinated and funded by WWF South Pacific’s fulfilled a lifelong ambition – working with turtles, out in the field, and not limited to a classroom of theories and conjectures.
Latia Tamata, the Marine Species Programme Coordinator at WWF South Pacific describes the survey as a perfect opportunity to gather quality data from the 2013-2014 nesting season that started in September 2013.
This will form the basis of long term data of nesting sea turtle populations for the next five years along the Great Sea Reef.
It also builds knowledge and understanding about the lifecycle of this creature and their ecological connectivity to inform both science and decision making on best approaches to be undertaken to protected endangered species such as sea turtles.
Researchers, guided by turtle monitors at the various turtle monitoring or Dau Ni Vonu sites, gather data through nesting beach surveys, listing down for instance the number of nests, turtles spotted and other features of these nest areas.
It was on one of these surveys that Ropate spotted the turtle in the middle of the beach on Katawaqa Island. His heart sang as he witnessed what he had travelled so far to see – a turtle ready to give birth.
Emosi Time, the turtle monitor who has converted this nesting island into a sanctuary for turtles, guided the researchers on every aspect of data collation. They spotted six nests but returned to the ‘lady on the beach,’ for a rare experience in nesting.
On average turtles lay 100 eggs for each nest. With a hatchling rate of around 90 percent, the challenge for the new additions to the sea turtle population begins deep in the sand where they are buried.
Crawling through the layers of sand, a feat is accomplished when they reach the surface. But they must navigate the precarious journey to the sea with even more bravado and are often struck down by predators that lie in wait.
Hungry sand crabs and birds – the hatchling must avoid, but fresh into this world, such predatory behavior is lost on the innocent.
Making it to the water’s edge, the vast ocean is the great, big unknown. Studies have revealed that out of that 100, only one hatchling makes it into adulthood.
For sea turtle conservationists like the turtle monitors, these are the facts that inspire them to work hard spreading the turtle gospel and protecting nesting sites to give turtles a chance.
Baseline information will form the basis of decisions like – which areas need protection because of nesting sites, does a specific location need more awareness? What of challenges both natural and anthropogenic that pose threats to turtle nests?
Tag and Release
On 16th January, Team Kavewa stood on the beach in front of the village, a female hawksbill tagged and ready for release.
For the team, tagging a turtle was the climax of a journey that has opened their eyes in many ways.
Why does turtle tagging happen anyway? There are two types of tagging – flipper and satellite.
For satellite tagging, the migratory path of this ancient mariner, where they go to feed or nest is easily tracked through the eye in the sky.
And should a turtle flipper tagged is caught; details of the tag are recorded and may serve to form a pattern about its whereabouts since day one.
These types of information contribute to decisions about nesting areas, hotspot feeding grounds to be marked for protection.
The turtles are ready to say goodbye to their newfound friends. It is with some trepidation that they walk down the beach and place the tagged creature in the shallows.
It was a proud moment for the team of four and tears welled up as they released her into the sea. They cheered and encouraged her on her journey into the unknown. What lay ahead of this mariner was anyone’s guess. But the pride that filled the researcher’s hearts cemented a lifelong passion for turtle conservation.
Like the one time turtle hunter, Emosi Time, who converted a turtle guardian, on the shores of Kavewa Island, defenders of the turtle race were born.